Editor's Notebook: Fine Weather for Mockingbirds
The go-to book when the temperature rises
As soon as the thermometer cracks 90, or threatens triple digits, the book I find in my hand is To Kill a Mockingbird. As Jack London is to snow, Harper Lee is to heat: she provides the literary vocabulary for sultry American summers such as this one. Besides, who can resist a book that describes the fate of those, like South Orange's very own restauranteur Stony, who are named for defeated Civil War generals?
Narrator Scout begins her tale with a look back at the fictional Maycomb, Alabama, circa 1935. "It was hotter then," she explains as the story begins. "A black dog suffered on a summer's day." Scout's Maycomb knew how to cope with such heat. The First Purchase African M. E. Church cemetery was hard clay; if a member died during a hot spell, the body was covered with ice until the rain softened the earth. The minister uses the weather, as well, closing the church doors until the collection plate is full. "Reverend Sykes," notes Scout, a visitor to the church, "intended to sweat the amount due out of his flock."
Maycomb men lift their hats and carry large handkerchiefs to wipe the sweat from their faces. Ladies "bathed before noon," Scout writes, "after their three-o'clock naps, and by nightfall were like soft teacakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum." Children such as Scout kicked off shoes in late spring, and reclaimed them only when began in fall. Her summer attire was threadbare overalls, nothing to speak of underneath.
Lee's heat, described in Scout's words throughout the story, is a metaphor, of course. As Scout's father, Atticus Finch, defends Tom Robinson against Mayella Ewell's accusation, tensions in the town rise like the noontime mercury. Robinson's trial begins and ends on one steamy summer day, when "It was an easy ninety," in the courtroom, as Rev. Sykes told Scout. She and he sat together in the balcony, looking down at the deliberations. He was barred by race, she by gender, from participating in the legal process as judge, jury or lawyer.
The warmth of the deep South penetrates to the bone. It's a visceral heat, especially in the depths of summer, when days often climax with a thunder or hailstorm. I think of that weather when the day reaches an "easy ninety" degrees. It reminds me of Lee's black dog sweltering in the sun, a vivid picture of heat's misery that has stayed with me since I first read the book on a muggy Mississippi afternoon many summers past.
Of course, that same sultry weather is Maycomb's great equalizer, a force that each citizen feels. Summer, then and in 2011, spares no one. We're sweating this one out together.
For all the heat and humidity of the past days and the hot weather ahead, it's a fine season for Maycomb and mockingbirds.